Things are all a flutter in the Greg Casar for Congress camp. That’s because one of his opponents, Austin State Representative Eddie Rodriguez, sent a mailer criticizing Casar’s record on homeless issues. The mailer; specifically highlights Casar’s leading role as a City Council Member in repealing the Austin camping ban in 2019; an action that led to homeless encampments all over Austin.
The Casar campaign quickly released a letter addressed to Rodriguez from a group of outraged “Democratic officials and progressive leaders.” They began, “We, the undersigned Democratic officials and progressive leaders, call on your (Rodriguez’s) campaign to cease using Republican-style campaign tactics.” That’s because “your latest political attack mailer appears to fear monger about unhoused people.” They added that the mailer also appears to “disparage the work of the Austin City Council [will comment on this statement in a future story].” The signatories closed the letter by saying the Rodriguez mailer “suggests a Gov. Greg Abbott-style approach to campaigning.” The letter also maintained that Rodriguez’s tactics “are shameful and have no place in the Democratic Party.”
A number of people joined in on Twitter. Several said the Rodriguez mailer, or the letter from the officials, convinced them to vote for Casar. Another, reflecting the tone of several others tweeted, “If u hate homeless people just say that.” Another judged that Rodriguez, “is definitely not behaving like a progressive” while still another elaborated, “Nothing screams ‘fake progressive’ more than being in favor of criminalizing houselessness. Very problematic rhetoric.”
Taking it just a tad further, another person tweeted, “Eddie only has about a month before he loses to Greg – and a lifetime to regret this nasty garbage.” The Austin DSA (Democratic Socialists of America), of which Casar is a member, opined that “Eddie Rodriguez is clearly desperate – appealing to vile anti-poor sentiments like this is shameful, even for a right-wing Democrat like him.”
Some had differing opinions, tweeting things like “about time” or that the Rodriguez mailer was a fairly standard campaign approach in criticizing an opponent’s record and contrasting it with their own.
Of the 16 signatories on the letter to Rodriguez, all but three — State Representatives Erin Zwiener and James Talarico and Austin Community College Board Trustee Julie Ann Nitsch — were already listed as Casar endorsers on his campaign webpage. Among the signers who had already endorsed Casar were Travis County District Attorney Jose Garza and Travis County Attorney Delia Garza, two San Antonio City Council Members, and a San Marcos City Council Member. (The full letter can be read at the bottom.)
OK, let’s take a look at the Rodriguez four page mailer and the letter from the “Democratic officials and progressive leaders.” We’ll give the mailer a fact check, although first I should note that the letter to Rodriguez from the officials and leaders did not make any claims of factual errors in the mailer. Their complaints centered totally on Rodriguez’s “tactics.”
The mailer is basically two pronged in its approach. It criticizes Casar’s leadership role in the Council’s 2019 lifting of the camping ban and it contrasts that with Rodriguez role in passing a bill that made it less difficult to build affordable housing, particularly for the homeless. For instance one page features a photo of a tent and messy encampment on a downtown sidewalk. (The tent appears to be outside City Hall although the mailer does not say.) There’s also a picture of Casar in the bottom left hand corner and a caption across the page reading, “This is Greg Casar’s failed answer to the homeless crisis.”
While people can debate whether the policy “failed” or not, it is a fact that tents sprung up on downtown sidewalks and many other places in the City because the City Council lifted the camping ban. And, the leader of that effort was Greg Casar. So, so far Rodriguez appears to be on solid ground factually and in raising the issue as part of Casar’s record.
Additionally, parts of the Congressional District that Casar and Rodriguez are competing to represent were among the most affected by the policy. For example, tents stretched for blocks in the median of Riverside Drive near Pleasant Valley Road in near southeast Austin. Another large encampment sprung up along the sidewalk and grounds at the Terrazas Library along Cesar Chavez Drive just east of IH 35 and adjacent to numerous homes in the area.
Another page of the mailer goes into more detail regarding Casar’s leading role in repealing the camping ban and allowing camping in virtually all public places. A headline reads,“Greg Casar not only designed the disastrous ordinance lifting the ban on tent cities in Austin, He failed to build decent, affordable housing.”
Underneath that headline are two blurbs that elaborate on the headline. The first blurb reads, “As an Austin City Council Member, Greg Casar ended Austin’s ban on encampment in public spaces, allowing homeless people to set up tents anywhere and making the city less safe.”
Once again, Casar posted the camping ban repeal on the Council agenda and rushed it to passage. It is a slight exaggeration to say tents could be set up “anywhere,” but the Casar led repeal made doing so possible in most public spaces. The Rodriguez campaign is comfortable enough with their claim to include a footnote citing specific Austin City Council meetings as their source.
The second blurb on that page reads, “As housing prices skyrocket, Casar has let Austin fall behind on building new affordable housing. Under his watch only 12% of planned homes got built while the homelessness crisis keeps getting worse.” Here, in a second footnote, the Rodriguez campaign cites a November 6, 2021 article in the Austin American-Statesman.
This page of the mailer ends with the stinger, “Greg Casar. There’s nothing progressive about failing to get things done.”
I’ll leave it to readers and voters to determine where they believe the mailer falls on the spectrum from “fear monger(ing) about unhoused people” and engaging in “Republican-style campaign tactics” or simply being a broadly accurate portrayal of Casar’s record on homelessness on the Council and a fair issue for a Casar opponent to raise.
The basic facts about Casar’s role in the homeless issue, however, are accurate: he was the architect and leading force in getting the camping ban repealed, which resulted in widespread encampments on Austin sidewalks, parks, underpasses and roadsides. It is a stretch to say that Casar “failed to build decent, affordable housing” because Casar was a leader in efforts that did result in some affordable housing being built that would widely be considered “decent.” It is true, however, that the Council failed to meet its own affordable housing goals or to live up to Casar’s rhetoric about affordable housing.
The specific 12% number cited in the mailer comes from a scorecard from Housing Works, which the Statesman and others then reported. It measures progress on the City’s Strategic Housing Blueprint, championed by Casar, and passed in 2017. The mailer maintains that “only 12% of planned homes got built.” That number comes from a section of the Housing Works report in where the group rates each Council district on what percentage of the goal for that district has been reached. Casar’s District 4 came in at 12%, sixth among the ten Council Districts. None of the Districts met their goal although District 1, represented by Natasha Harper Madison reached 98%. In addition to the Statesman story, which the Rodriguez mailer cites, stories on the issue were carried in the Independent, the Austin Monitor and and numerous other outlets.
Democratic Officials Possibly Reading Prop B Results Wrong
The Rodriguez mailer does not mention the Prop B election on May 1, 2021. That is the citizen petition driven election in which Austin voters overturned Casar’s and the Council majority’s repeal of the camping ban and reinstated it. The “Democratic officials and progressive leaders” who sent the letter to Rodriguez, however, appear to be referring to Prop B when they write, “the Travis County Democratic Party and other Central Texas Democrats stood firmly against the Republican effort to attack unhoused residents in Austin.” The language is a bit vague, but “the Republican effort” almost certainly refers to Prop B, which was led by Travis County Republican Chair Matt Mackowiak, along with a then little known Democratic ally.
The Democratic signatories on the letter to Rodriguez appear to have perhaps misinterpreted the results of the Prop B election. It is true, as they state, that the Travis County Democratic Party opposed Prop B. Prop B, however, passed by a margin of 57% to 43%. Such a margin is not possible in Austin without a large number of Democrats having voted for Prop B. For instance, as the Independent reported at the time, “Republicans did indeed vote for Prop B by large margins,” but many Democrats also “clearly voted in favor of Prop B as well.” That included some central city precincts who in the presidential election seven months earlier delivered votes in the mid-80% range for Joe Biden, but then voted in the mid-50% range for Prop B. Also, as we noted then, “Even where Prop B did not carry Democratic dominated precincts, the margin was often much narrower than those usually delivered for progressive causes and candidates.”
In the precinct, where the Terrazas Library is located, Prop B passed with 58% voting yes. The same precinct went for Biden by 86%. In the precinct just east of there Prop B also passed, with 53%. The Montopolis area, with the major encampments nearby on East Riverside near Pleasant Valley, went 55% in favor. These precincts also delivered large percentages for Biden. (The East Austin precincts discussed here are traditional Mexican American barrios, but have seen demographic changes for decades now due to gentrification.)
Given these numbers it seems accurate to say that the Democratic officials who signed this letter have not spent much time analyzing why so many Democrats failed to follow the county party’s lead on Prop B. Instead they just state, “the Travis County Democratic Party and other Central Texas Democrats stood firmly against the Republican effort to attack unhoused residents in Austin.”
Analyzing the Second Theme of the Rodriguez Mailer
As noted earlier, in addition to attacking Casar’s record on the homeless issue, Rodriguez also uses the mailer to tout his own record on the issue and contrast it with Casar’s. The mailer says that Rodriguez “wrote and passed the Land Trust law which allowed ‘nonprofits’ to “dramatically reduce property taxes and costs (and) created opportunities for those who could not otherwise afford homeownership.” The mailer also stresses that the law helped make the widely praised Community First! Village a reality, where “85% of the people who live in the 380 homes” there “were formerly homeless. Now they live safely and with dignity.”
Rodriguez discusses the law in more depth on his campaign website. There he points out that he worked with then Austin State Senator Kirk Watson and Community First! Village founder Alan Graham on the legislation. For instance the “caption text” of the bill he and Watson worked through the Republican led legislature reads, “Relating to the exemption from ad valorem taxation of certain property owned by a charitable organization and used in providing housing and related services to certain homeless individuals.” Anyone who wants to study Rodriguez’s claims in more detail can check his website here and trace the bill’s path through the Legislature to the Republican Governor’s desk here.
On his website Rodriguez also details other efforts at affordable housing, some which helped the City build affordable housing, but others that were vetoed by Governors Rick Perry and then Abbott.
In summary, while the existence of Community First! Village resulted from the efforts of many people in addition to Rodriguez it seems certain that his work in the Legislature helped make its existence possible, as he claims in the mailer.
Stay tuned for more coverage of this race and others. Early voting begins February 14.
Letter to Eddie Rodriguez from “Democratic officials and progressive leaders.”
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